The dusty road was red, the colour of the earth in Cambodia. I can’t explain how bizarre the border crossing was – a cross between apocalypse now and the Las Vegas strip; we had emerged from the sprawling metropolis of Thailand into a no-mans-land, part desert part amusement park. Small children chased after us, begging over and over again for one dollar, please miss one dollar. I conceded and gave them the dollar, partly because I felt sorry for them, but also because I wanted them to stop.
A taxi had brought us that far; between seven of us it was inexpensive and the air conditioning was a relief. And so we travelled by road from Bangkok to the Thai/Cambodian border, at Poi Pet. The taxi dropped us off on the Thai side, and we had to walk across the border with our bags, and pass through customs. We walked past casinos and shops and bright lights, which seemed out of place in the hot dusty environment. There was no tarmac for the roads, just the deep red earth under car wheels.
Border control looked at our paperwork and were satisfied; this took maybe 45 minutes or so, but we expected this. I felt safe in the knowledge that our ride to Siem Riep would be waiting for us just on the other side, in the new country. A friend running a guesthouse in Siem Riep had arranged the ride for us, and as promised, two new taxis were waiting for us when we were allowed to pass through the gates.
One black and one blue, these vehicles didn’t have air con, just a steady slip stream passing through the open windows. I didn’t mind really, because it meant I could stare out at the amazing country side. I didn’t notice so much the town we passed as we began the drive through Cambodia, because I was feeling quite tired from being out in the midday sun. But as we drove, the town turned into open countryside. I remember little shacks and sometimes little cafes by the side of the road, and beyond them fields. The journey was slow and a little uncomfortable; before the road was tarmac, it was red earth and very bumpy and irregular. Our driver even had a special extra foam layer for his car seat, to protect him from the constant shaking from the car bouncing along the road.
It’s very different now. The NR5 is a perfectly straight flat road, with no bumps, and no unexpected detours where water has claimed it. Back then it was more wild.
About half an hour into our journey, our driver got a call. He said the other taxi, which was behind us, had broken down. He turned around in the road, and went back to where the other car was stranded. A tow rope was produced to tow the car to a garage; just an old stringy piece of rope. And the garage was one of the shacks we passed on the drive earlier. Several men looked under the bonnet, and they reached the decision that a new part was required. Another mans scoots off on a moped, and we were left to wait for the part.
It was still burning hot outside, but the midday sun had passed so we could bear it, but looked for shade. I thought about how I would feel differently if I were travelling alone, and how I might feel intimidated, being stuck there with no escape and no grasp on the situation. Travelling with a bigger group was immensely reassuring, but also distanced me from needing to make any very important decisions. Everything was taken care of, for which I am very grateful, but I never gained that experience or self confidence of dealing with things on my own. I hope if I return, it will be to append that aspect of travelling.
The part arrived and was fitted, and we were back on the road. By the time we reached Siem Riep we were tired, it had been 8 hours of travelling. And there is a big difference between sitting in a seat for 8 hours, sleeping, resting, allowing your thoughts to wonder, and going on a journey that involves many changes, conversations and problems solved.
I can guarantee however that it was worth it. It may not be expensive to fly from Bangkok to Siem Riep, but I wouldn’t trade the land route for anything – a plane journey may be quick, but I keep those memories forever.